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Marc Landy: We’re caught in the gulf between Republican stupidity and Democratic silence. The president’s inaugural address is an opportunity to turn the tide. (Poster Boy NYC/flickr)

As the nation prepares to inaugurate its president, this is a good time to contemplate the two meanings of the word “dumb.”

Republicans seem to have the greater claim to the colloquial meaning of the word, as in “stupid.”

They ran a presidential campaign single-mindedly devoted to moaning about an economy that was, in fact, gradually improving. And their candidate had two crucial opportunities to elevate the debate — but passed on both of them.

First, after choosing a running mate whose major virtue was his courage to address the most serious issue facing the country, the debt crisis, Mitt Romney refused to give this grave matter center stage. Instead he promoted a tax plan so implausible as to sacrifice any claim that Romney-Ryan might have had to being the more fiscally responsible team.

Republicans seem to have the greater claim to the colloquial meaning of the word, as in “stupid.”

Next, he failed to properly manage the great crisis of his campaign. After being caught depicting 47 percent of the voters in crude and patronizing terms, Romney brushed the remark off and made no serious attempt to explain himself. What he should have said is that there is something amiss when so many Americans pay no income tax and are excessively dependent on the government.

Since Romney’s defeat, his party has relentlessly followed the misguided path he blazed. It threatened to send the nation over the fiscal cliff in order to keep the rich from paying more taxes. Its House contingent embarrassed its leader by refusing to pass his debt plan — which was, in fact, less obnoxious to them than the one they were ultimately forced to accept.

Republicans now threaten to force either bankruptcy or untenable budget cuts rather than raise the debt ceiling. By refusing to consider closing tax loopholes to raise additional funds, they pretend that the nation’s fiscal woes can be solved without substantial increases in revenue.

And then there’s the other meaning of the word “dumb”: “mute.” Enter the Democrats.

In a time of crisis, silence can be as destructive as stupidity. And when it comes to the serious issues of entitlement reform and deficit reduction, President Barack Obama says nothing. He simply refuses to acknowledge that the nation is facing an entitlement-induced catastrophe. What voice he does have, he devotes to endorsing tax hikes on the rich, an idea that may have merit but offers no hope of getting the runaway train of entitlement overspending back on track.

Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security already consume more than 40 percent of federal spending. Since 2009, the Medicare trust fund has had to pay out more money than it received. At current spending rates, it will be exhausted by 2016. According to the same projections, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted by 2033.

Health spending and longevity continue to rise at rates far in excess of economic growth, and so the amount of the nation’s wealth devoted to health care and old-age pensions will also continue to rise. The General Accountability Office reports that in 2011 about 7,600 Americans turned 65 every day. It projects that number to rise to 11,400 a day by 2029.

These breathtaking numbers would make almost anyone speechless. But a president has no such option. He must offer guidance on how to avoid this fiscal precipice.

Then there’s the other meaning of the word “dumb” … Enter the Democrats. In a time of crisis, silence can be as destructive as stupidity.

Because of his silence, it’s impossible to tell what Obama really believes should happen to alter the trajectory of Medicare and Social Security spending. Perhaps he dreams of imposing 75 percent taxes on the wealthy, as the president of France has tried to do? Or maybe he really does understand that the only way to sustain Medicare and Social Security at their present levels is to impose draconian taxes on the middle class? Or to drain the rest of the federal budget of its capacity to do all the other things the public counts on government to do?

One hopes that President Obama is not also deaf — that the strong and eloquent voices calling for budgetary stringency and entitlement reform are catching his ear. Former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, who were appointed by Obama to head the effort to reduce the national debt, are now leading Fix the Debt, an organization devoted to meaningful budget reform including major restructuring of entitlements. Its members include mayors, governors and prominent members of the business community.

In his upcoming inauguration, Obama will address hundreds of millions of people. His speech will undoubtedly be well phrased and well delivered. But presidential rhetoric, even eloquent presidential rhetoric, is mere noise if it does not educate. He should not waste this unique opportunity by simply telling his followers what they want to hear — that those who look to government for help will find his administration receptive and generous. He must emulate Abraham Lincoln and use his Second Inaugural to tell the people what they need to hear. He needs to speak — loudly and clearly — about the sacrifices we will all be called upon to make to restore the nation to fiscal sanity.

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Tags: Barack Obama, Election 2012, Mitt Romney

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • massappeal

    I’m not sure how helpful it is for Prof. Landy to write a column calling Republicans and Democrats “dumb”—particularly when there’s not much “smart” about his column.

    1 – It’s simply not true that “the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted by 2033″. 2033 is the date at which, according to current projections, the Social Security trust fund will not have reserves to pay the full level of benefits to which it is currently committed—not a good thing, but far different from having totally empty coffers. (Raising the cap on what constitutes “taxable income” for Social Security so that the affluent making six-figure incomes would pay FICA taxes at the same rate as the working and middle-classes is one change that would largely solve this problem.)

    2 – As was loudly discussed in the recent presidential campaign, Obamacare cuts Medicare payments (and thus, federal spending) to insurers and providers by $716 billion in the coming decade. (By contrast, the Republican-initiated Medicare Part D was passed with no consideration for the fact it would significantly increase federal deficits.)

    3 – The well-respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) pointed out last week that “Policymakers can stabilize the public debt over the coming decade, ensuring that it doesn’t grow faster than the economy and risk eventual economic problems, with $1.4 trillion in additional deficit savings over the next decade. Policymakers can achieve the $1.4 trillion with $1.2 trillion in policy savings — tax increases and spending cuts — because that would generate almost $200 billion in savings in interest payments.” http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3885

    4 – CBPP notes that this is possible because the president and Congress have already enacted—through the federal budget, the 2011 Budget Control Act, and the recent “fiscal cliff” American Taxpayer Relief Act—over $2.3 trillion in debt reduction in the past two years.

    Finally, one would expect a smart political scientist like Prof. Landy to be aware that “In all, close to half of the members of Fix the Debt’s board and
    steering committee have ties to companies that have engaged in lobbying
    on taxes and spending, often to preserve tax breaks and other special
    treatment…”, making the organization less an exemplar of “meaningful budget reform” and more an example of Washington corporate lobbying-as-usual. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/10/us/politics/behind-debt-campaign-ties-to-corporate-interests.html?_r=0

  • BobF

    To
    say that Social Security is part of the problem because its funding
    trust runs out in 20 years–when the funding for almost everything else
    in the budget is in deficit TODAY–is pathologically dumb.

  • NamePick

    I knew what to expect when I read the title and here it is: “the nation is facing an entitlement-induced catastrophe.” Sigh. You must have read Krugman sometime since 2009? I guess you just say he is wrong. Ever heard of Dean Baker? Hard to miss him. I guess you just say he is wrong. Maybe you read some of the previous studies of social security, by, say, Nobel Prize winner Peter Diamond of MIT? Probably not or you wouldn’t throw social security in with medical care programs. Tell me, what happens if the USA adopts a national health system similar to France? Hmm, good care, much less cost. Ask Dean Baker what that does to the “catastrophe.”

  • ap318

    You can nitpick over details of the article, even if true the facts will change over time. The real takeaway message is both Democrats and Republicans spend more time trying to undermine each other by scoring points with the public than trying to solve the nation’s challenges and providing real leadership.

    • NamePick

      You are repeating the Republican anti-government (pro-business) marketing message.

      Frontline just did a review of Obama’s first term. If you watch it you will see two things:

      1. Obama faced more large problems (economy, war, environment, healthcare) than anyone should have to shoulder and he did a good job accomplishing much while avoiding disasters (the economy is recovering, war is winding down some, alternative energy use is increasing, the affordable care act was passed).

      2. The Republicans are doing everything they can to implement severe austerity and eliminate social programs.

      I think the news media can’t handle the fact that the two sides are not at all morally equal. Many people don’t want to just label the Republicans as what they now are – gun toting oligarchs.

      • ap318

        I belong to no political party. My comments are based solely on how the politicians conduct themselves in public and recognize it’s even worse in private. Both parties actively embrace a never ending stream of public ad hominem attacks, looking for blame and pointing fingers that does nothing more than cater to the most base personalities and encourages others to do the same. Regardless of party affiliation we should demand more of our political leaders and government officials.

    • massappeal

      You may well be right that “the real takeaway message (of this column) is both Democrats and Republicans spend more time trying to undermine each other by scoring points with the public than trying to solve the nation’s challenges and providing real leadership”. If you are right, then it’s further evidence of the author’s falling into the “false equivalence” trap.

      Prof. Landy claims that “Republicans seem to have the greater claim to the colloquial meaning of the word (“dumb”), as in “stupid”” and provides some evidence for his opinion.

      He then turns to “dumb” as “mute” and claims “when it comes to the serious issues of entitlement reform and deficit
      reduction, President Barack Obama says nothing. He simply refuses to
      acknowledge that the nation is facing an entitlement-induced catastrophe”.

      This claim is demonstrably false. President Obama has reduced the annual federal deficit at a faster rate over the past three years than any president since Truman. The Affordable Care Act, in addition to numerous other cost-saving measures, cuts $716 billion in excess Medicare payments to insurers and hospitals over the next 10 years. President Obama has also signed into law $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction measures over the past two years. He has repeatedly expressed his willingness to sign additional deficit reduction measures—including those that would cut Medicare and Social Security—so long as those measures are achieved by a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases.

      What’s clear (or so it seems to me) from the recent “fiscal cliff” vote and debt ceiling debate is that there is a dominant faction within the Republican party that does indeed care more (perhaps for good reasons!) about scoring points than about solving the nation’s challenges.

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